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Family business provides food for thought

Sobeys store owner David Gilbert was named Okotoks Business Owner of the Year in this summer’s Best of the Foothills poll.

Sobeys store owner David Gilbert was named Okotoks Business Owner of the Year in this summer’s Best of the Foothills poll.

The Gilberts have been grocers since 1982 when David’s dad Don and a partner bought his first store in what is now Olde Town Okotoks. It had three checkouts and a staff of about 40.

A few years later, when it was becoming apparent that Okotoks was going to grow into a major distribution centre, their wholesaler wanted to establish a bigger presence in the town. Don and Rae Gilbert opened an IGA store on Southridge Drive where Staples is today. They brought David in as a partner in 1999 and he acquired the company from them in 2003.

By that time Sobeys Inc., IGA’s parent company, wanted to move the store to the then-new Cornerstone Shopping Centre at the corner of Highway 7 and Southridge Drive.

“It was a difficult decision,” David recalled. “In the end, I was concerned that if we didn’t take the new site, somebody else would, so we moved early in 2004.”

Walmart, Costco, No Frills, and Save On Foods have all entered the market since then and David has felt the impact.

“The pie is only so large,” he said, “and as each new competitor comes in, the slices get smaller. We’ve relied on the quality of our offerings and our service to maintain our position.”

He credits his staff for the success of this strategy. “We have staff with up to 30 years of service,” he said. “They set the standard. 

“We also employ a lot of high schoolers part time. Some have stayed on. Jamie Clinansmith, our store manager, started here just after I did. I don’t think Jamie has ever worked anywhere else."

David has also been fortunate to have family members work in the store. His uncle, Greg Gilbert, runs the produce department and two of his nieces are also employees. And his dad Don still puts in the odd shift stocking the shelves when he’s in town.

The grocery business is changing. Most stores already offer online shopping and delivery and many also offer ready-made meals. There are even online businesses that home-deliver packages consisting of all the ingredients required for a meal, along with detailed instructions about how to cook it.

But David thinks there will always be ‘foodies’ who want to come into a store and shop for themselves.

I admit that I’m like that. I enjoy my weekly trip to the produce section and the meat department and the deli and the bakery. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know the people in the store, and they’ve gotten to know me. It’s a comfortable feeling.

So, count me as one of those who voted for David as Business Owner of the Year. I’ll admit I’m biased, but I think he earned it.

Dick Nichols writes about business every month in The Western Wheel.